The first season of Netflix’s live-action adaptation of The Witcher was a careful balancing act. In some ways, it was the service’s answer to Game of Thrones, a bloody fantasy epic with a story that spanned a continent (and many years). But, in keeping with the source material, it was also a lot of fun. There were creepy monsters to hunt each episode, some great comic relief in the form of an annoying bard, as well as steamy bath scenes and a full-on orgy. It had everything.
Season 2 attempts to up the fantasy stakes by focusing on some of the bigger, more existential questions about The Witcher universe, from the origins of monsters to why a young princess’s screams create earthquakes. The result is a show that has a more ambitious, epic feel and one that also loses some of the personality that made it such a hit in the first place. These issues mirror the trajectory of the books, but they feel more pronounced in a live-action series where so much depends on the characters and their performances.
Note: this review is based on the first six episodes of The Witcher season 2 (there are eight in total) and contains light spoilers.
The story picks up right after the events of season 1’s final episode, in which two important things happened. One, Geralt (a monster-hunting mutant played by Henry Cavill) and his ward Ciri (a princess with strange powers played by Freya Allan) finally reached each other after spending the past eight episodes seemingly running in parallel across an entire continent. At the same time, a huge battle ended after the mage — and Geralt’s on-again, off-again love interest — Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) channeled some dark forces to temporarily defeat an entire army. These events left the cast in some interesting places, which is right where season 2 kicks off.
There’s a lot going on. At the outset, Geralt, always the lone wolf, is now a father figure and takes Ciri with him to Kaer Morhen — a secluded spot in the mountains that serves as the home base for the witchers — in order to keep her safe and plot his next move. Ciri takes this opportunity to train. After spending the first season almost entirely as a victim on the run, she wants to become strong enough to defend herself. Yennefer, meanwhile, is a prisoner of war who is now struggling with a very personal loss.
Amidst all of the individual struggles, season 2 of The Witcher attempts to broach some big, universe-defining questions. At the center of it all is an event, often spoke of in passing, called the conjunction. Essentially, before the conjunction, there were different realms, or spheres, keeping the likes of humans, elves, and monsters separate. But the conjunction saw them forced together, creating the world as we know it in The Witcher. So many things are tied to this event — the sudden appearance of new monsters, Ciri’s powers, the existence of the witchers in the first place — that it serves as the connective tissue for pretty much everything happening. (If you’re looking for even more backstory, I highly recommend the animated prequel movie Nightmare of the Wolf, which provides some great context for the history of witchers and monsters.)
It’s interesting to see these larger questions at play, but the best part of this complicated setup is that it lets you see the main cast from all new perspectives. Geralt has become such a dad, focused almost entirely on Ciri’s well-being, even if it means upsetting the other witchers who just want to kill things and sleep for the winter. Ciri makes a dramatic turn into an incredibly determined budding warrior, while Yennefer is forced to deal with life after losing a defining part of her life. I won’t spoil too much about Jaskier (Joey Batey) other than to say he is no longer a happy-go-lucky bard — more like a lover scorned after his split from Geralt. (Seriously, just wait until you hear his new hit song.)
This season also brings the woefully underused mage Trish Merigold (Anna Shaffer) into a much more prominent position and turns the seemingly heartless Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni) into a surprisingly sympathetic leader. At the same time, The Witcher introduces some key new faces. Among them: Geralt’s mentor and father figure, Vesemir (Kim Bodnia), who is desperate to keep witchers from going extinct, a dark mage named Rience (Chris Fulton) tasked with finding Ciri, and Nenneke (Adjoa Andoh), a priestess who helps guide Geralt through this new (for him) territory.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on, but it’s actually a little easier to keep things straight this time because, unlike season 1, everything is happening on the same timeline. (The show even pokes fun at the complexity of last season with a great self-aware joke.) I do miss the monster-of-the-week structure from 2019, but season 2 works because its central mysteries are so interesting, and the shifting perspectives on the main cast help keep it feeling distinct from what we’ve already seen. It’s not just more of the same. And the show still offers plenty of what I want from a Witcher story. There are terrifying monsters (including a particularly unsettling vampire in the first episode), at least one sad death, and that very Witcher-specific kind of tragedy that makes you feel bad when a giant bug monster is murdered.
But the bits it’s missing prove to be very important. The Witcher is full of political intrigue and fantasy drama, but a core part of the appeal is also all of the sex and jokes. Season 2 is missing both. We still have Geralt’s sarcastic, dry quips, but I definitely realized how important Jaskier’s comedic relief was once it was almost entirely gone. It’s cool to see a new side of the character, but I wish he didn’t take all of the jokes along with him. Likewise, for a franchise where virtually every iteration — from the video game to the anime to the live-action series — is closely linked with an image of a buff man in a bath, it’s remarkable how sexless this season is. The Witcher is one of the rare dark fantasy stories where the sex is fun and joyful, rather than frequently tied to violence and rape. Now it’s virtually non-existent.
Don’t get me wrong: I still binged through the season incredibly quickly because I just had to see what happened next. The second season has great momentum that keeps it moving forward, along with an even more well-rounded cast than before. But it also felt like the show was slowly moving away from much of what made it so distinct. I love watching Geralt slice apart monsters and accidentally get caught up in political turmoil as much as anyone. But a few laughs along the way would be nice.
The Witcher season 2 debuts on Netflix on December 17th.